As the Bighouse carving work nears completion, the team of eight artists — four masters and four local apprentices — are looking back over the enormous project, feeling grateful to have been part of it, and sad to see its end. Left to right: Junior Henderson, Talon George, Johnathan Henderson, Walter George, Jeremy Wamiss, Greg Henderson. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

As the Bighouse carving work nears completion, the team of eight artists — four masters and four local apprentices — are looking back over the enormous project, feeling grateful to have been part of it, and sad to see its end. Left to right: Junior Henderson, Talon George, Johnathan Henderson, Walter George, Jeremy Wamiss, Greg Henderson. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Sisiyutł serpent ready for the new Bighouse

The triple-headed serpent is one of several intricate carvings artists have made for the Bighouse

In the carving shed on the Tsulquate reserve there are four house posts and two cross beams, carved and painted. Lying flat they are like slumbering monsters, each measuring about four feet in diameter and a couple of dozen feet long.

Beaver, Human, Thunderbird, Dzunukwa and K’olus depicted on four of the poles will hold the weight of the ‘Bighouse,’ the gukwdzi. They tell of each nations’ history, origins, legends and teachings. The two cross beams, one a sisiyutł and one a grizzly-human, will rest above the floor where ceremonies, potlaches, dances and songs will take place.

The eight artists worked full time for a year and a half, with some delay when COVID-19 interrupted plans. The project has given four young people the opportunity to study under the master carvers. This Bighouse is helping to revive cultural ways of life – from design to building, and eventually active use.

“It’s been the joy of being able to be part of this project, my brothers and I; this is our dream job. We have a love for the art form, but also the passion we have for our culture, and more importantly our traditions,” said master carver Johnathan Henderson.

He and the other three Henderson master carvers, Bill, Junior and Greg, have deep roots in the ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation; through their father and grandfather Sam Henderson, a renowned carver from Blunden Harbour.

Stories of the Sisiyutł

One cross beam is carved as a triple-headed serpent called sisiyutł, that is said to represent balance, said Henderson. His father told him one of many stories about sisiyutł, and Henderson shared a shortened version of it last week after the beam had been completed.

“A long time ago, the serpent actually only had two heads. One day, a young warrior was feeling despondent after getting in trouble with his dad. He’d been ridiculed by his dad and others in the village. The young man walked away, feeling unwanted. He reached the shoreline and stood deep in thought, head down.

“From the water, a sisiyutł saw the young warrior and came closer. The warrior saw this powerful creature come up. Both the man and the serpent were entranced with each other, imagining the power they would have from seeing the other.

“And the sisiyutł devours the young warrior. Not to eat him because he was hungry, but so they could go through a metamorphosis together.”

That’s how this double-headed sea serpent ended up with three heads. The middle head depicted in sisiyutł art is generally a human face, and often hands are included. On this carving the artists showed its arms as well. That’s how the serpent would get around on the ocean floor, Henderson’s father told him.

“Quite often we’re told sisiyutł is a representation of balance, how in our lives of today we’re trying to maintain a healthy balance in life,” Henderson said. It parallels other culture’s teachings of the medicine wheel, where mental, spiritual, physical and emotional life is to be balanced.

Some stories tell of sisiyutł transforming into a canoe. The Hendersons included a reference to that tale by putting human faces in sisiyutł’s fins, representing paddles of the canoe.

RELATED: Totem poles almost complete for Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Big House

There are a few things left for the carvers to do, but most of the project is finished.

The next major step is to break ground on the location for the Bighouse and start construction. There’s no confirmed date, but the Project Coordinator Joye Walkus is working on funding applications and other plans.

Elders said it was important for the Bighouse to be near water and to face east. Tsulquate reserve is not an easy place to build.

The higher ground is mostly granite, and lower areas are softer, wet land.

The house was originally promised by the government when the two nations were relocated to Tsulquate from their homes in Gwa’sala from Takush (Smith Inlet) and ‘Nakwaxda’xw from Ba’as (Blunden Harbour) in the 1960s.

Delayed but not abandoned, the house has been discussed and dreamed about for decades, and is being carefully designed to represent both nations.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


CultureIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

The human head centre of sisiyutł for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

The human head centre of sisiyutł for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

The three-headed sisiyutł creature carved across a thick trunk of cedar for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

The three-headed sisiyutł creature carved across a thick trunk of cedar for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Close-up of one of sisiyutł’s two serpent heads. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Close-up of one of sisiyutł’s two serpent heads. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Close-up of the sisiyutł’s fins with human faces as paddles, representing its ability to transform into a canoe. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Close-up of the sisiyutł’s fins with human faces as paddles, representing its ability to transform into a canoe. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Just Posted

A beautiful sunny afternoon showcasing Mount Cain in all its glory. (Kimberley Kufaas Photography)
Mount Cain to start construction on new lodge once season ends

The North Island ski hill has been awarded $874,000 to build a brand new lodge.

The U’mista Cultural Society is getting $294,000 in funding. (North Island Gazette file photo)
North Island gets infrastructure and jobs boost from Economic Recovery Plan

“I’m thrilled that so many North Island organizations are benefiting from this funding”

Gordie Wigman and Edward Cote won $55,425.85 from the draw on Dec. 28. (BCLC photo)
Port McNeill friends win over 55 grand

Wigman and Cote purchased the ticket from the Port McNeill Petro Canada on Mine Road.

OrcaFest parade 2019. (North Island Gazette file photo)
COVID-19: Port McNeill’s annual OrcaFest cancelled again

“We promise you that once we are safely able to do so, OrcaFest will be back!!”

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Then-Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson looks on as MLA Shirley Bond answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. Liberal party to choose next leader in February 2022

Candidates have until Nov. 30 to declare whether they are running

After nearly 10 months of investigations, Mounties have made an arrest in the tripping of an elderly woman in Burnaby this past April. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Mounties charge suspect for tripping elderly woman near Metrotown in April

32-year-old Hayun Song is accused of causing bodily harm to an 84-year-old using her walker

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives to view the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Death threats mount against Dr. Bonnie Henry, sparking condemnation from Horgan, Dix

Henry has become a staple on televisions in homes across British Columbia since January 2020

Most Read